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Big Bucks and State Power determine the outcome of Elections in Sri Lanka.

R. Chandrasoma

The comforting myth that elections are the means of determining the will of the people on pivotal issues bearing on the wellbeing of the nation needs re-examination based on the actualities of electoral process in this country. Let us review, briefly, the balance of forces and the concomitant political horse-trading the put CBK and her party (the PA) in power in 1995 and ingloriously removed her from power - if not from office - about half a decade later. To the student of local psephology (the science of voting) two factors stand out as crucial to the success of a political party or group - the first is the availability of huge sums of money to finance an effective and credible political campaign. It costs tens - if not hundreds - of millions of rupees to mount the kind of campaign that will sweep a political party to power. The next is the co-opting of state power to help the party officials to neutralize, demean, demonize and frighten the opposition. This can range from the active use of the police to frame bogus charges against political opponents, the indifference of those in authority to complaints of malfeasance, the prostitution to narrow political ends of the State-controlled media, the flagrant use of the resources of the state to buttress the campaign of the favoured party and, last but not least, deliberate fraud at polling stations.

The party with these two 'plus factors' tucked beneath its belt is sure to win. There will be protests that this analysis leaves out what is supposed to be the most important factor in elections - the policy issues endorsed by the respective parties and on the basis of which the a selection is made by the voter. That this is hogwash was noted by no less a person than a former Prime Minister - Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka. There is no real difference between the leading parties in policy matters. They all shout for peace and promise economic prosperity but are driven by circumstance and shifts of position over which they have no real control. Are the electors not aware of this tomfoolery? Certainly a minority - at most about 5% - vote on the basis of principles and are hard pressed to decide which is the better of two evils. There is also a minor constituency that is driven by ideology and may cast its vote for a party which they know will never have a commanding position in Parliament The vast majority vote on the basis of patronage: they vote for the man who promises to 'look after them', spends heavily on publicity and has a well-funded army of 'catchers' who can nurse the electorate on his behalf. Clearly, this requires money and organizational support that no 'minor' party can muster. No surprise that they are routed at elections.

To a substantial degree, the shortfall in cash can be made up by the illegal use of the state apparatus to do the work that usually devolves upon the candidate and the party he (or she) represents. This translates into the well-observed fact that a party that fares remarkably well when in office is routed at the polls when bereft of state power and stripped of the kind of financial support that it enjoyed when ensconced in authority.

CBK's victory in 1995 provides a test case for our theory. Her party (and, without question, her charismatic presence) attracted the support of a mighty consortium of groups that were for 'peace' and dreaded a revival of Sinhala nationalism of the kind that DBW typified. Marxists, Catholic Activists, Big Business, Foreign Powers and Agencies, Tiger-funded Jounalists and others too numerous to mention rallied to the support of her party and to her, personally. There was a massive flow of money to fund her campaign. More importantly, state power was not used by the benign and fair-minded President of the day to subvert the conduct of the election. She won handsomely. One can easily guess that if RP was in power the result would have been very different. State power would have been used with unscrupulous efficiency to block the ascendancy of the PA.

Let us look at the recent success of RaWik and his UNF. The very forces that energized and pumped up money for the PA a few years ago abandoned her for the new political Messiah. The quantity of money frittered at recent elections by the UNF is quite unprecedented in the post-war electoral history of this country. There was a fantastic splurge on posters, TV ads, glossy brochures, full-page newspaper advertisements etc. Immense sums were spent on grass-root support for individual candidates. The question that honest citizens must ask is this - who bank-rolled this futuristic campaign? Is there a relation between this 'bank-rolling' and the many high-level appointments made by the UNF? Since there are legal implications to all this we shall not pursue the matter further.

No one will question the truism that CBK was (and remains) a great expert in the unethical use of state power to foster the interests of her party and for her personal aggrandizement. Why did she fail in the last political showdown with the UNF? The biggest blow was the last-minute desertion of her trusted 'experts' in electoral manipulation to the ranks of the enemy. The long purse of the UNF is said to have plaid a decisive part. There is also the brute fact that man who exchanged letters with her (none other than Pirapaharan) found a new darling in RaWik and made her look foolish. The minorities who voted en block for her in 1995 switched wholesale to RaWik and his party. It is good to remember that the PA lost but was not routed at the parliamentary elections because state machinery was at its command at the time of the election. The true rout occurred in the recently held elections for local bodies when the combined 'long purse' of the UNF and the 'expert' management of the propaganda instruments of both the state and the privately owned media made a PA victory as unlikely as a snowball in hell.

There are important lessons to be learnt from all this. When the RaWik regime claims that it has a 'mandate for peace' from the people who gave their overwhelming support to the new government, it is less than honest. The Sinhala masses vote for patrons, not for policies. This home truth must be digested - not only by the UNF leadership, but also by those foreign fools and their local agents who comment on these matters. It is only party with money and politico-administrative power that wins. Bereft of these vital assets, no party, however idealistic and people-friendly, can win an election. A party such as the Sihala Urumaya which has richness and a resonance for the bulk of the people of this country can never win as long as patronage is the chief concern of the voter - the desire to put somebody who can help him to overcome existential dilemmas.

A concluding thought.

The JVP has had a surprising measure of success that appears to run counter to what we have said so far. They are very well organized and the key to this is the availability of money. Who funds the JVP? We leave this question unanswered.


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